Religious and civil rights groups plan to challenge Quebec's secularism bill

Civil rights activists in the National Capital Region say they will challenge the secularism bill the Coalition Avenir Québec introduced Thursday.

Public school teachers and principals to be banned from wearing religious symbols

The Quebec government's intentions to regulate religious clothing has already drawn protests, including this one last fall in Montreal. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

Civil rights activists in the National Capital Region say they will challenge Quebec's secularism bill introduced Thursday by the Coalition Avenir Québec government.

The legislation bans public workers from wearing religious symbols such as the kippa or hijab.

This includes judges, Crown prosecutors, teachers and principals, although the bill will contain a grandfather clause to allow an estimated 500 public sector workers to continue wearing their religious symbols.

Reactions to proposed legislation in Quebec that would ban public employees, including judges and teachers, from wearing religious symbols in their workplaces. 0:35

Public employees who carry a weapon — such as police officers, prison guards, and courthouse constables — will also be affected.

"We will fight this," said Leila Nasr with the National Council of Canadian Muslims in Ottawa.

"If [secularism] is truly the goal, then we really don't believe that this bill is going to help Quebec get there. Secularism — or laïcité — is not the absence of religion in the public sphere. It's the commitment of the state to respect and to protect all religions equally."

Quebec Premier Francois Legault has repeatedly said he's prepared to use the notwithstanding clause to impose the ban. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

'State-sanctioned discrimination'

Nasr said the bill is particularly harmful because it puts religious minorities at a disadvantage when it comes job opportunities, stunting their economic mobility.

"The reality is that Muslim women, and other people who choose to wear their religious identifiers, will now wake up to an entirely different set of opportunities that is afforded to other Quebecers," she said.

"Put simply, this is textbook state-sanctioned discrimination. For a community that's already been pushed to the margins and targeted and ostracized ... this is especially concerning."

Human rights activist Fareed Khan and Hull-Aylmer MP Greg Fergus say Quebec's secularism law, which would ban public workers from wearing religious symbols, unfairly targets minorities. 0:54

Fareed Khan, who is Muslim and lives in Gatineau, agrees and said the new legislation unfairly targets minorities. "It's not just Muslims," said the human right activist. 

"Sikhs who are very visible ... Jews, as well, who wear kippas, they're going to be singled out."

Khan said the bill has created a sense of fear in his community, which could lead to a change in the demographics of the province. 

"You will see an exodus of professionals and others from Quebec, which is going to impact Quebec society in many ways."

Taking off the turban to teach? Quebec's new secularism bill aims to force elementary and high school teachers from wearing religious symbols in the classroom. We'll get reaction from the head of the province's English teachers' union. 7:47

The bill invokes the charter's notwithstanding clause, which allows provincial or federal authorities to override certain sections of the charter for a period of five years.

With files from Benjamin Shingler